CINCINNATI -- The Heart Mini Marathon was the first big attempt locally to tap into the running boom of the late 1970s. Jim Fixx’s bestseller The Complete Book of Running had just come out.
Americans were jogging in record numbers.
Tim Schilling, the regional director of the American Heart Association, came up with the idea a spring race.
It turned out to be a good one. After all, they’ll run the Heart for 40th time Sunday.
“I hoped it would turn out to be what it’s become,” Schilling said.
“We wanted something more than a race. We wanted something that would impact the city. It’s become that. It’s also raised a lot of money for the Heart Association.”
The Heart is no longer just a race. It’s four races and a walk -- the original 15-kilometer race, plus a half-marathon, a 5K race, 5K walk and a 2K kids' race. Those are all on Sunday, beginning at 7:30 a.m. The Health and Fitness Expo at Duke Energy Convention is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.
It turns out the first big hurdle for the Heart was surviving the first race. The race had gotten a good reception. They brought in Bill Rodgers, the best known American runner at the time, to drum up some publicity and run in the race.
WCPO was broadcasting it.
The then-mayor -- a guy named Jerry Springer -- was the starter. The course began at Fifth and Vine streets and went out to Central Parkway.
Schilling says they were expecting 800 or 900 runners. Closer to 2,000 showed up. Springer, by the way, decided to run -- in his wing tips -- after firing the starter's pistol.
The larger-than-expected crowd led to some problems at the finish line. Things backed up and a lot of runners never got an official time.
“Fortunately, they were a forgiving group,” Schilling said.
The field of 2,000 raised $16,000. This year, 27,000 will participate. They’ve raised $2.6 million already with a goal $3.6 million.
There are a lot of factors in the remarkable growth. Part of it is another running boom. Part of it is the Heart has always been well-run. Part of it is the picturesque course (it was moved to Columbia Parkway the second year).
But Schilling and his race director, Bob MacVeigh, made some good decisions early on. The pair traveled to Boston for the Boston Marathon to get ideas.
“We were hoping we could grow into something like that,” Schilling said.
That led to getting Rodgers to come to the inaugural race.
“We paid for people to come for years,” Schilling said. “We were looking to get publicity. That helped build it.”
Celebrities have become a big draw. Rodgers has been back two other time times. Famous runners Frank Shorter, Jim Ryun, Grete Waitz, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Billy Mills, Mary Decker Slaney, Bruce Jenner and Roger Bannister are among the others to come in for the event.
The Heart also commissioned a poster for the first one. The poster became an iconic collectable work of art.
Don Connelly, the race director, says the Heart really took off when it began using the team concept -- where a group gets together to raise money.
“That’s how the big races get big,” Connelly said. “There are so many teams. People recruit others to run with them. Whole families run together. You’ve seen that with the Flying Pig.”
Connelly says one other thing the Heart has going for it is people can relate.
“Everyone knows someone who has had a heart problem,” he said. “People identify with it.”
And, again, it’s always been a well-run event, so people keep coming back.
Seven runners, in fact, will be participating in their 40th Heart on Sunday. They are Steven Hull, Dennis Geiger, Timothy Kling, Dave Lenahan, Jack Nienaber, David Nelson and John Quatkemeyer.
Kling said once you get started it’s hard to stop, although he liked the simpler version.
“To be perfectly honest, if I didn't have a streak going, I would have stopped running this race a long time ago,” he said. “It used to be the penultimate runner's race. All of the top runners came to challenge one another. Now it's just a fundraiser. When there was only one race, the 15K, we all pitted our training and talent against other runners in the community. Now the race is fragmented into various distances with different starting times.”
That’s OK with Geiger.
“The race's growth and staying power has been great to see and experience,” Geiger said. “Thanks to all the volunteers through the years who have made this a great race and a successful fundraiser for the Heart Association.
"In the early days, most of the runners were hardcore. Times and completion was the driving force for many who ran. Today that still exists but the move toward a healthier lifestyle now motivates many participants today.”
Geiger’s favorite memory came in the 2006.
“A friend who trained with our running group for many years unexpectedly passed away,” Geiger said. “Another friend in the group showed up race day with pieces of material about the size of a race number with our friend, Al's name printed on them. Everyone in the group pinned these to the back of their shirts and ran the race with and for Al that day.”
Kling’s favorite memory was meeting Rodgers.
“I think it was in Year 20,” he said. “The race promoters brought Boston Billy back for the race.
“I ran into him on Fountain Square after the race. He signed my T-shirt and we talked at length about running and other things. Super nice guy.”
Geiger still runs with some of the same people he did in the first Heart.
“Looking back I'm amazed to have been lucky enough to have run them all,” Geiger said. “It has been an interesting journey.”
The same could be said of the race.
“I’m very proud,” said Schilling, who retired from the Heart Association 15 years ago. “We had the good fortune of having a good staff. They’ve come up with fresh ideas to keep it growing.”
Growing and going at 40.
John Fay is a freelance sports columnist; this column represents his opinion. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org